I was appalled when the following "quick fact about autism" came through my Facebook feed from the Autism Sceince Foundation today:
It is possible to detect signs of autism in infants as young as 6-18 months. For example, if a baby fixates on objects or does not respond to people, he or she may be exhibiting early signs of an autism spectrum disorder.
You know who diagnosed her baby with autism at six months?
And then she killed him.
Autism is a developmental delay.
Kids have to have had a few developmental milestones before you start saying they have autism.
Diagnosing autism in infancy is foolish and dangerous.
Stephanie Rochester, who killed her 6-month-old son, was found not guilty by reason by insanity yesterday. When she killed Rylan, she told authorities that it was because he had autism. However, yesterday in court, her delusions were depicted in much more colorful fashion.
Psychiatrist Richard Martinez said she saw her son as an "alien, toxic, contaminated being" and that he "was contaminated or possessed in some sense." The reason for this is obvious-- thinking her son was autistic was not sufficient legal justification for murder:
To be legally insane under state law, a defendant must be so "diseased or defective of mind" that she cannot distinguish right from wrong or cannot form intent. If a defendant has a delusion -- for example, that a normal child is not meeting developmental milestones -- that would not justify a criminal action, such as killing the child, and the defendant would still be guilty under state law, despite being mentally ill.
Martinez found Rochester insane and said he believed she suffered from a "misidentification" of Rylan, such that in her mind, he was no longer her son and a human being. For example, he said she stopped breastfeeding because she believed that Rylan was poisonous to her in some way. In another instance, she thought Rylan's hand was a claw, Martinez said.
Rochester believed both that she had to kill her son to get rid of the toxicity that had taken him over and that by killing him, she would be relieving his own suffering from that toxicity, Martinez said.
1. This switch from autism to a different set of delusions calls into serious question the court's choice not to allow prosecutors to have Rochester evaluated by their own psychiatrist-- she was seen only by an expert for the defense and one from the state mental hospital. This gave prosecutors little chance to contest their finding that she was legally insane:
However, on cross-examination, prosecutor Adrian Van Nice pressed Martinez to explain why no one around Rochester realized she had these delusions and why she only expressed her concerns in terms of autism or another developmental delay.
2. Rochester's husband Lloyd wishes there had been a jury trial:
Lloyd Rochester testified that his wife was an educated and self-aware mental health professional who had always appeared able to recognize harmful ways of thinking.
After the hearing, Lloyd Rochester said he was "disappointed" the case hadn't gone to a jury, and the family was never convinced Stephanie Rochester wasn't malingering or making up her psychotic symptoms. Her initial confession was consistent with her frequently expressed fears of autism, but no one in the family ever saw any indication she saw Rylan as possessed, toxic or poisonous, nor did they notice any other psychotic symptoms.
"We felt in general like the Boulder County justice system bent over backwards to protect Stephanie's rights and didn't focus on the real victim, which was Rylan," Lloyd Rochester said.
3. There is a striking similarity between Rochester's second set of delusions and the way that people with autism are often depicted in the media. We are often seen as "alien, toxic, contaminated beings." As I wrote about a month ago:
Rochester's involvement with autistic children went far beyond the occasional encounter:
Rochester told authorities that she worked for two years as a counselor with autistic kids at Children's Hospital and "can recognize the signs of autism." She said she was convinced her son, Rylan, had severe autism.
Children's Hospital Colorado became part of the Autism Treatment Network in 2008.
The Autism Treatment Network is one of the flagship efforts of Autism Speaks.
We know what Stephanie Rochester's attitude toward people with autism was:
She placed a plastic Target bag over Rylan's head as he slept and then put a blanket on top of his face, the affidavit said.
"She said that she had conducted research on the computer and read that carbon monoxide poisoning deaths don't hurt and you just go to sleep," Spurgeon wrote. "She did not want Rylan to hurt."
After a minute, she removed the bag, and Rylan was still breathing. She went downstairs, according to the affidavit, and ate dinner with her husband -- drinking wine and discussing selling their house.
"She and Lloyd talked about how they wanted to have fun in life," Spurgeon wrote. "Stephanie said that she knew they would not have fun while they were caring for a severely autistic child."
It is possible that Rochester's attitude had nothing to do messages she got about autistic children from her work at Children's Hospital. It is also possible that Autism Speaks had nothing to do with any negative attitudes she picked up there.
And-- this is important-- Rochester was not a reasonable person. Even if negative messages she picked up from Autism Speaks did affect her, that would not mean the organization should or could be blamed for Rylan's death.
However, that does not mean that people who are alarmed by this crime should not also be alarmed by the way Autism Speaks has talked about autistic people.
Stephanie Rochester will face no charges because prosecutors do not believe that they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was sane when she killed her son:
According to her arrest warrant, Stephanie Rochester told a police detective that she thought her son "was showing signs of autism" and she attempted to suffocate Rylan Rochester with a plastic bag before putting blankets over his head the night before he died.
"She wanted to kill herself, but did not want to burden her husband with the baby inflicted with autism," the affidavit stated. Her husband also told police that she had been depressed for some time and was taking the antidepressant Zoloft.
Rochester worked for two years as a counselor at Children's Hospital and worked with children with autism, the affidavit said.
I did it. I killed my baby.
When you have a child with autism, your life is ruined.
Those statements and others made by Stephanie Rochester will be admissable evidence if her case goes to trial.
Rochester is accused of using blankets and a plastic bag to kill her six-month-old son, Rylan.
Medical professionals who evaluated the boy say he was developing neurotypically. He was never diagnosed with autism.
Autism Speaks and other supposed advocates for autistic people continue to push the message that having a child with autism is a fate worse than death.
That message kills people.
Now that you know sometimes the people it kills are neurotypical, do you care?